What Are The Future Of Nation States? -- Better Ask Facebook

May 9 2014, 2:06pm CDT | by

What happens when Facebook decides it wants to issue passports?

This is no idle question. Right now, Facebook has well over a billion members, making it the third largest country in the world. So the larger issue at hand is does one’s online social identity trump one’s real world patriotic identity?

Perhaps not yet—but sooner or later it will.

If you plumb the literature, most researchers feel nation states exist for four major reasons: guns, money, land, and tribe. Let’s take a quick look at each.

Guns—this one’s obvious: Nation states control the armies, the weapons, etc. But not like they used to. We can now 3D print everything from handguns to automatic weapons to rocket launchers, with the blueprints and how-to tutorials available online, for anyone, for free. Of course, the standard counter here is what about WMDs—after all you can’t 3D print a nuke—but with the radical advances being made in synthetic biology, the ability for the average person to create a biological WMD are growing exponentially. So no, when it comes to who controls the weapons, well, nation states have lost their competitive edge.

Money—Nation states control currency, but maybe not for long. For one, bitcoin is trying to change all of that. Even if they don’t succeed, you got to believe that sooner or later someone will. Remember, the idea of a centralized, standardized currency is only a few centuries old and is much more a living experiment than a trustworthy tradition. In other words, when it comes to centralized currencies, we have no idea what they’re normal lifespan is… but considering that for almost 10,000 years local currencies were the rule, the idea that we may eventually re-fracture our financial system doesn’t seem so peculiar.

Land—This is the big one. But, again, not for long. In a recent blog, I probed the question of what happens when virtual reality becomes more fun and more meaningful than actual reality. This weird singularity is coming at us far faster than most expect and remember, it was Facebook who purchased Occulus Rift and is now leading this charge. In other words, however strong our online social identity feels today, they’re only going to continue to grow stronger. As this next century unfolds, as life moves more and more into the virtual, the value of “the land” and, more importantly, the way “the land” shapes our identity and allegiances will continue to shift.

Tribe—One only has to survey ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East to realize that we’re still as tribal as we’ve ever been. And we have a great many nation states organized along exactly these kind of ethnic lines. And even more organized along religious lines. But the question remains, how long will this bounded sense of identity hold. Right now, Google and Facebook are in an arms race, with plans to spend billions to launch drones, balloons and satellites capable of providing free or ultra-low cost internet access to every human on Earth. This means, over the next few years, more and more people will be coming online and doing what people everywhere do online—finding groups of like-minded folk and hanging out with them. But these like minded folk will come from all over, breaching borders and building bridges and again, how long until these virtual tribes trump actual tribes?

So if the four pillars that have historically propped up nation states are starting to crumble, how much longer will the institution itself survive?

*Check out Steven’s latest book, The Rise of Superman.


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